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Inspectors' lanterns were a particularly specialized type of railroad lantern, having been designed for the car inspector or "car knocker". Just as highly polished and ornate conductors' lanterns represented the prestige and high status of railroad conductors, inspectors' lanterns represented the hard, dirty, behind-the-scenes chores of their namesakes. Inspectors' lanterns were plain and utilitarian in design, and perhaps for these reasons, collectors have generally paid less attention to them. Yet, the car inspector's duties were of vital importance to safe railroad operations, and for the collector, inspectors' lanterns deserve a closer look as an important category of railroad lighting.
In contrast to other railroad lanterns which were intended to serve dual purposes of illumination and signaling, inspectors' lanterns were designed to do one thing: throw light and lots of it. The larger varieties used big globes, roughly 7 inches in height, and all used reflectors or mirrors to allow light to be concentrated in one direction. Since car inspectors generally operated in yards and terminals, weight and portability was not as much a concern as with other types of railroad lanterns. Therefore inspectors' lanterns could be large and bulky to accommodate larger combustion chambers and fuel tanks without seriously compromising their function.
Many lantern manufacturers advertised inspectors lanterns in their catalogs. Among these companies were Embury, Buhl Stamping, R.E. Dietz, C.T. Ham, Defiance, Handlan, Star Headlight & Lantern, E.T. Wright and Piper. Curiously, the largest railroad lighting company, Adams & Westlake, seems to have ignored this market, perhaps because another company, R.E. Dietz, truly dominated it. By far the largest number of inspectors' lanterns were sold by Dietz. A 1917 Dietz catalog boasted that one of its models, the "Acme," had been adopted as the standard inspectors' lantern by most of the railroads in the United States. Moreover, the vast majority of inspectors' lanterns that show up in railroadiana shows and auctions are from this one company.
Dietz made two major models of inspectors' lanterns: the larger "Acme" model and the smaller "Ideal" model. The "Acme" model (see example at upper right) was a "hot blast" lantern, meaning that it used partially heated air mixed with fresh air to promote combustion. The hot air was delivered to the flame by the flanking tubes. Barrett states that the "Acme" model was introduced by Dietz around 1900 and discontinued in the mid 1950's. Over this long period of a half century, there were variations in the handle shape, but overall the basic design did not appear to change much at all.
The smaller "Ideal" model was a "cold blast" lantern, meaning that only fresh, cold air was fed to the flame (See example at right). This type of combustion produced a brighter light than a comparably sized "hot blast" lantern, so the overall size of the "Ideal" could be smaller than the "Acme." The "Ideal" was originally introduced as the "Junior" model around 1909, became the "Ideal" around 1915, and lasted in the Dietz catalog until the mid 1940's. A notable feature of the "Ideal" was that it used an identical globe to Dietz's popular "Vesta" brakeman's lantern, a feature no doubt appreciated by thrifty railroads who did not want to stock a different size globe. Perhaps because of its compact size, Dietz also attempted to market the "Ideal" model to ticket inspectors and car checkers in addition to car inspectors.
Dietz was apparently the only company that went to the trouble of putting railroad identification markings on its inspectors' lanterns. Based on what shows up in today's railroadiana market, no other company stamped railroad initials or markings on their inspectors' lanterns, even though most of these same companies did so with brakemen's lanterns. One caveat here is that some railroad markings (e.g., "NYC-S" for the New York Central System, "I.C. R.R." for the Illinois Central Railroad) have been seen on Star Inspector's lanterns, but these appear to be shop-marked (by railroad personnel) rather than factory-marked. Generally a list of factory-originated railroad markings on inspectors' lanterns is a list of the two Dietz models.
The following markings were compiled largely by Larry Davis, beginning with his fine article on Inspectors' lanterns that appeared some years ago in RCAI's Express and, subsequently, with additional markings that he sent to us (Thanks, Larry!). Other collectors have also emailed markings -- thanks to them as well.
"Ideal" Model **
Buffalo, Rochester, & Pacific
Delaware & Hudson
New York, Ontario & Western